You can find any number of articles online that will trumpet the news that nearly half of the world’s gamers are female. But what does that figure really tell us? What the data often miss is that this side of the gaming world skews considerably older than the male equivalent; the average woman playing video games is 37 and financially independent. And in fact, women outnumber male gamers in the 50-64 and 65+ demographics.
With an audience of adult women gamers whose numbers are nearly double those of boys under 18, it is important to question why so many games seem designed with adolescent males as the default audience. But just as critical is the question of why middle-aged and older women don’t seem to be targeted for any gaming news or entertainment content of their own. What sets them apart and makes the industry as a whole feel comfortable ignoring them?
The key to this mystery is the perceived divide between “hardcore” and “casual” (terms that seem suspect from the outset), with middle-aged women relegated to the latter category. And while it’s wrong to assume that casual gamers don’t deserve our attention, it is true that their tastes are very different from the (largely young and male) hardcore gamers. This older segment of women prefers to play mostly puzzle and strategy games, most often on a mobile device. They gravitate toward the type of “snackable” games that can be picked up and put down at a moment’s notice.
Historically, women have not been particularly well-served by the sedentary nature and limited distribution of traditional games. But casual mobile games have made inroads with women who previously never had the opportunity or inclination to set aside time for lengthy gaming sessions. Prior to the advent of mobile, a person might sit in their basement and play for an hour at a time. Now, the games are always with us.
Many studies that examine the role of women as video game consumers approach them fundamentally as a single monolithic audience, which runs the risk of erasing the distinctive qualities and needs of middle-aged and older women. When you read that 30% of people watching YouTube gaming videos are female or that 21 million people subscribe to the top 10 female gamers on the platform, it might be easy, though debatable, to come away with the impression that women are already reasonably well served and well represented in the world of gaming content. But to what extent do these figures only reflect engagement of younger women? Without studies that break down these numbers across different age demographics, it’s difficult to say.
There is an increasing number of influencers on YouTube or Twitch who focus on mobile gaming, but these rising stars are largely male and almost always young. And an examination of the most popular female streamers doesn’t appear to overlap much with the age range or game preferences of the women who are devoting the most time and money to video games. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, either, since we know that middle-aged women are playing on their phones and often on the go. How many of them are interested in sitting down for hours to watch never-ending game streams? And how interesting would it really be to watch someone else play Pokémon Go for hours? Games like this are only expected to hold players’ attention for a few minutes at a time.
Middle-aged women who play casual mobile games deserve to have gaming content that speaks to them on their own terms, and it’s not likely that streaming video is going to do the trick. Dedicated websites focused on mobile game news and reviews would likely do well, especially if they were optimized for reading on mobile devices. Smartphone apps that allow users to rate and review their favorite casual games with a social dimension (think Goodreads for games) would also have the potential to be more accessible than YouTube or Twitch. Middle-aged women have shown that they are willing to spend plenty of time and money on their favorite casual games, so why force them to rely on word of mouth to discover new favorites?
The media is paying lots of attention, especially in the wake of Gamergate, to the issue of how to make gaming a more inclusive space for women. And while this impulse is welcome and important, it tends to be concerned with girls and younger women who are actual or potential members of the hardcore gamer audience. Recruiting more female developers and creating games with woman-oriented narratives might revolutionize gaming culture, but it won’t necessarily change the lives of women who enjoy stealing a few spare moments to play Candy Crush. Identifying middle-aged women who like mobile games as “casual” gamers shouldn’t be a reason to write them off or neglect their unique information needs. But just as gaming culture hasn’t been quick to embrace them, they haven’t tended to identify with the culture. That’s why it will be easier to create new gaming content hubs from scratch with female casual gamers as the target audience than to rope in middle-aged women with a new Rooster Teeth series or a special section on Kotaku.
Just as the average middle-aged female gamer isn’t likely to join an Overwatch league, she probably won’t be well served by the type of gaming content that speaks to the people who do. But she represents a huge and well-off market segment whose spending power has yet to be fully tapped. King, the hugely successful developer of Candy Crush Saga and other popular casual games, was acquire by Blizzard for $5.9 billion. But the games themselves are only the tip of the iceberg. Content creators have the opportunity to create an entirely independent media ecosystem for casual gamers and her friends if they’re brave enough to throw away the blueprint and try some new ideas.